A Foodie Goes Plant-Based For the First Time: What She Learns in a Week
I’m an omnivore. This doesn’t only mean that I eat meat and cheese, but more wholly means that I am passionate about food and eating. I am fascinated by the space food takes in a culture. This time of year, I am especially drawn to the comfort and nostalgia of soul food, the stick-to-your-ribs food tradition brought from the South by Black folks during the Great Migration. So, I took on this plant-based challenge with a twist; I will not only eat plant-based, but I would also find vegan recipes for my favorite Southern comfort foods.
I wanted to take on this challenge for a few reasons. For one, I love the creativity that cooking something new requires, especially with the added constraint of using only plant-based ingredients. I am also always interested in learning more about my cultural history and how I can adapt and honor the culinary traditions of my heritage. Additionally, I have been exploring the ways I can use food to heal my gut and inflammatory issues. In my intuitive eating journey, I have become increasingly in tune with the foods that make me feel good, and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables rank high on that list.
Whenever I eat plant-based meals, I tend to focus on whole foods. But for the purposes of this challenge, I also wanted to try I few substitutions, including vegan butter, cheese, yogurt, and sausage, for the sake of thoroughness. During the week I had no meat, no dairy, and no eggs, although I gave myself a pass for the small amount of honey in graham crackers, which are otherwise vegan.
Vegan Kitchen Essentials
Through trying several recipes (some hits, some misses) I found a few essential ingredients that kept me happy and nourished throughout the week:
- Hot sauce: Brings out flavor, livens up bland food, and serves as a useful acid to counter the richness of soul food. I love Crystal. Other great brands are Cholula, Tapatio, Valentina, and Frank’s (for a buffalo sauce flavor).
- Vegan butter: For most cooking, olive or other neutral oils work perfectly. But soul food, and certainly baking, a buttery flavor kicks up the authenticity. I found Miyoko's Cultured Vegan Butter, made from cashews, to be an amazing spreadable butter. And Earth Balance Vegan Buttery Sticks worked perfectly for baking pie and biscuits.
- Unsweetened oat milk: I didn’t enjoy the taste when I drank it alone, but I love the creaminess of it for baking. And it has a more neutral taste than naturally sweeter plant-based milk like almond or cashew.
- Collard greens: My favorites are the peppery turnip and mustard greens, but the more bitter collards are easier to find. They cook down beautifully and are an extremely nutritious side to any meal.
- Unsweetened coconut milk: Though higher in saturated fat, coconut milk is amazing in creamy sauces.
- Sweet potatoes: These versatile tubers are central to many soul food recipes, savory and sweet alike. I love them because they are vegan, gluten and soy-free, low sugar, and high protein.
Which Recipes Worked – and Which Didn’t
The biggest challenge of the week (other than craving chicken tenders) was dealing with some recipes that were flops. After putting in the work of creating a meal, it’s a bummer when it doesn’t live up to your expectations. By the end of the week, though, I came out with new cooking skills and a few recipes in my pocket.
My go-to plant-based breakfast is oatmeal with peanut butter, cinnamon, and bananas. I was happy to start my week with something familiar that I knew I enjoyed. Things became more challenging when I attempted my first soul food recipe that evening.
Red beans and rice is a traditional New Orleans dish and is typically made with kidney beans, Cajun spices, aromatics, and sausage. Most cuisines worldwide have a bean and rice dish because it is cheap, easy, and nutritious. For my red beans and rice, I used a canned trio that included kidney, black, and pinto beans. Though my beans were well-seasoned with aromatics and spiced, the Beyond Meat sausages I added missed the mark for me. Still, variations on this are always a great plant-based staple.
A dish that I had high expectations for was a recipe for vegan pot roast using jackfruit. I was excited because pot roast is my favorite dish that my Granny makes. I used a frozen pack of jackfruit and seasoned with steak and Worcestershire sauce before roasting with carrots, mushrooms, and potatoes. It wasn’t awful but something about the texture of the jackfruit was off-putting. And the dish didn’t take on the richness I would have liked. I would still like to explore ways of recreating the comforting umami of pot-roast; it will likely require a mushroom or lentil-based dish.
Vegan Mac and Cheese
I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the vegan mac and cheese recipe I found on Loving It Vegan. Though not “cheesy,” per se, it pushed all the creamy, savory buttons that traditional mac 'n' cheese does. Instead of using vegan cheese crumbles, which I find too sweet and often not melty enough, this recipe uses a blend of coconut milk, nutritional yeast, veggie broth, and spices. In my version, I used panko crumbs instead of making my own breadcrumbs. This is a recipe I would absolutely make again.
Sweet Potato Pie
I’m not joking when I tell you this Babe Made Blog recipe for vegan sweet potato pie is the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever had in my life. I didn’t have a pie pan, so I made more of a sweet potato bar, which was still divine. The richly flavored graham cracker crust adds a special touch to a pie that is usually baked on a fairly bland base. I’m making this pie for Thanksgiving.
Vegan Biscuits and Recipe
I looked up several variations on vegan biscuits before landing on my recipe. Using both baking soda and baking powder are key to creating super fluffy biscuits that rise (instead of flattening like my first batch).
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cooking Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Makes 6-8 small biscuits
- 2 cups flour, plus more for the kneading surface
- 2 cup flour
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp baking soda
- 2 tsp baking powder
- ½ cup or 6 tbsp cold vegan butter, cubed
- 1 cup plant milk (I used oat milk) + 1 tsp white vinegar
- Preheat oven to 425° and grease a small cookie sheet or baking dish with vegan butter or cooking spray.
- Prepare vegan buttermilk by stirring 1 tsp vinegar into oat milk. Keep in fridge until ready to use.
- In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients.
- Cut in cubed butter with a pastry cutter or two forks until butter forms small pea-sized lumps are incorporated with dry ingredients.
- Gently fold in vegan buttermilk until just incorporated, being careful not to overmix. The mixture will be sticky.
- Turn the mixture out onto a well-floured surface, making sure to flour your hands as well. Gently pat the dough into an even 1-1 ½ inch thickness.
- Cut the dough with a biscuit cutter or top of a glass and place barely touching onto your baking dish for better rising.
- Bake for 12-14 minutes until golden brown.
- Let cool slightly and enjoy with vegan butter and jam or syrup. Store at room temperature in an airtight container for up to three days.
After my week of plant-based eating, I feel such a sense of encouragement. It was easier than I expected and some of the other cuisines I love, like coconut milk-based curries, are already vegan. I enjoyed eating more produce than usual and felt lighter. I am committed to adding 2-3 plant-based days into my routine each week.
I was impressed by the quality of the plant-based butter I used and will be incorporating more non-dairy ingredients into my diet. Like many people, lactose irritates my stomach and I’ve been looking for alternatives anyway. It was eye-opening to find how much I loved some of the recipes I tried. I think the mindset is a big part of taking on a plant-based diet and many omnivorous folks like me would be pleasantly surprised at how shifting their view of vegan food can change the way they view eating.
I’m proud that I can make a full plate and dessert of comforting soul foods – and not an animal product in site.